masahiro tanakaAs you no doubt now know, the Rakuten Golden Eagles have decided to allow 25-year-old ace Masahiro Tanaka to come to the United States. The team that signs him will owe Rakuten a $20 million posting fee, but, outside of that, Tanaka is free to sign with any team in MLB. Mark Feinsand reports that the posting will begin today, and the entire process must be concluded by January 24.

Before turning to the actual news and rumors at the outset of the Tanaka chase, I want to discuss the Chicago Cubs’ involvement in the process at a broad level. I also want to be very clear about how likely, or unlikely, the Cubs are to actually sign Tanaka.

The Cubs may have had Tanaka earmarked as their top offseason target since day one. The Cubs may have been squirreling away birthday money and searching in couches for quarters for a year just to save enough money for Tanaka. The Cubs may be set to put on a full-court blitz in selling Tanaka on Chicago and the team. The Cubs may do everything a team can possibly do to land a guy, including offering the most money, and they still might not get him.

In fact, it’s far more likely than not that the Cubs will not get Tanaka.

Even if you believed that the Cubs had a better chance than any other team in baseball to land Tanaka – a stretch – you’re still not going to say that they’ve got a better than 50% chance. That means, even the most optimistic among you should have the Cubs as more likely to fail to get Tanaka than to land him. That’s simply the reality of having many, many interested teams. Although the Cubs are now frequently mentioned as primary suitors, even in national reports, you also regularly see the Yankees, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Angels, Mariners, Red Sox, and Rangers.

If you were spitballing some chances, you might say that the breakdown based on early rumors and perceived attractiveness of destinations is something like:

Yankees – 20%
Dodgers – 20%
Cubs – 15%
Diamondbacks – 10%
Angels – 10%
Mariners – 5%
Red Sox – 5%
Rangers – 5%
Others – 10%

That’s an 85% chance that the Cubs don’t get Tanaka, even if they really, really want to land him and are prepared to step up with a competitive offer.

The front office, assuming they’ve got the money they need, will have its salesmanship tested in this one. Chicago doesn’t offer the glitz of Los Angeles or the prestige of New York. The Cubs have sported terrible teams in recent years, and feature rapidly falling attendance. They’ve got an historic ballpark, but one that isn’t exactly friendly from a player facilities standpoint.

The Cubs will have to lean on things like the tremendous farm system, poised to bear fruit. The history of the organization and the ballpark. The dedication of the fans. The upcoming renovation. The chance to be a part of the team that finally does it. And maybe a little bit more money than the next team. Will that be enough?

Let me ask you: if you were headed to Japan to play ball, how would you choose your team? If the money were in the same ballpark, would you choose the one that everyone knows? The one with the history of winning? The one in the fantastic coastal city? The one with a stacked roster that looks like a sure winner, especially with you on the team?

There are absolutely reasons that the right kind of guy would want to come to the Cubs over the other suitors. But he’s going to have to care about a lot of things that other folks don’t seem to focus on, and he’s going to have to not care about a lot of things that just about everyone says are important.

None of this is to dampen your hopes for Tanaka, or to say that the front office has ahead of it an impossible task. Convincing guys like Tanaka – who perfectly fit The Plan – to sign on, assuming the money is there, is a huge part of their job (and I have a suspicion that they’re among the best at it). I just want to make sure, at the outset of this chase, that everyone has a realistic perspective on the Cubs’ chances here and the headwinds they face.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to obsess about Tanaka over the course of the next month. He’s the top free agent on the market, a perfect fit for the Cubs, a player they’ve said they’ll pursue, and the kind of addition that can mark the start of something new. His story is enormously important – not only for those reasons, but also because his presence is dictating the entire pitching market right now – and I’ll be covering it closely.

(And while we’re being realistic, it’s important to remember: if the Cubs do manage to land Tanaka, he doesn’t make the team a winner in 2014. Even with Tanaka, the Cubs are probably a sub-.500 team in 2014. But they’re potentially looking much, much better for 2015 and beyond.)



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